Digital technology changing education, classrooms
Feb 24, 2013 (The Janesville Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Faces of the Future
The Gazette offers a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Amanda Werner's fifth-grade classroom at Janesville's Adams Elementary School throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
Click here to read earlier installments in the Faces of the Future series.
JANESVILLE -- Like Ms. Frizzle from "The Magic School Bus" series, Amanda Werner wants her students to get involved in learning.
As Frizzle always said, "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!"
A recent class allowed Werner's students to do just that. It was a review for an upcoming science test unlike the boring test reviews of yesteryear.
Werner had borrowed some iPad tablets to add to her own, so she had 11 available.
She divided the class in two, one half on the iPads, one on the classroom's SMART Board -- a big-screen digital device with numerous uses. She gave them instructions:
The SMART Board group would go through a series of colorful slides with text about the digestive system, taking turns reading or taking notes. Then they would write a short essay from the point of view of a piece of food making its way through the system.
The iPad group would work with two apps. One app allowed them to build a digestive system -- mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, etc. -- by moving the organs into their proper places. The second app taught them facts about the digestive system. Then, they were to answer questions, such as "What is a gastroenterologist " by searching the Internet.
Ready, set, go.
Werner's biggest problem was dealing with chatter as one group disturbed another.
Students had little trouble with the touch-screen technology or manipulation of images. They've been using these devices for quite a while.
Some students seemed distracted, while others vied to have their turn at the SMART Board.
Others were engrossed. A couple went off topic on the iPads, looking at images of psoriasis on a medical website -- "Ewww!" one girl said.
Werner moved around the room, helping when needed.
"Research says they're probably learning more this way than if I was standing in front of them and talking," Werner said. "But for me, sometimes it's hard to let go."
Computing devices are changing the way teachers teach and for the better, many experts say. The devices allow the student to take an active role in learning, rather than sitting and absorbing what the teacher says.
Robert Smiley, the district's chief information officer, was hired last year with a mandate to make Janesville schools ready for 21st century learning. He is an enthusiastic believer in the power of these devices to improve how students learn.
Research shows that students' writing improves, for example, when they do it on a computer.
Gadgets are not enough, however. Smiley said a skilled instructor is a must. Janesville teachers who have SMART Boards are required to get trained in their use. Courses also are available for iPads and a world of Internet resources developed to help students learn.
Most students seem ready for it.
They see digital technology everywhere today -- in homes, airports, stores and in schools. Most are growing up with it. They teach their parents how to use it. Educators call them digital natives. Their parents -- and most teachers -- are digital immigrants.
It's the schools' duty to ensure that students become well informed adults who can function in a world that's moving faster and faster because of digital technology, Smiley said.
Chalkboards, whiteboards and overhead projectors were the teacher's friends in an earlier generation. SMART Boards and other brands of digital interactive whiteboards are taking over that role.
Werner has had a SMART Board for three years. It's a digital device that can work like a chalkboard with an unlimited supply of surfaces. It can be a big-screen TV or computer monitor. It can display a universe of teaching aids and lessons, most with interactive, student-friendly functions.
This is the first year Werner has had access to the SMART Board's Smart Response system.
In preparation for an upcoming test, Werner led her fifth-graders through a slide show quiz, displayed on the SMART Board. Students responded using clickers. Their answers were automatically recorded, giving Werner instant feedback.
"I can monitor who has answered in real time, guaranteeing participation by 100 percent of the class," Werner said. "Not to mention the kids think it's pretty slick."
Computer gadgetry certainly makes kids perk up. They often jump up and wave their hands when asked to come to the SMART Board to manipulate a grammar or math problem using the touch-screen technology.
But will it always be fun, or will students become bored
"We haven't seen, yet," Smiley said. "We haven't seen children disengaged where the teacher knows how to use the SMART Board well."
There are issues, to be sure.
Werner, for example, would like it if all her kids had reliable computers at home that they could use for lessons. She wishes she had more iPads. Time and budgets will tell whether these roadblocks on the information superhighway are temporary.
Janesville public school officials are working on a plan, to be revealed this spring, that shows their way forward.
Not that Janesville is technologically backward. The public schools have new wireless Internet access points just about everywhere, and some classrooms have sufficient devices.
During Werner's recent iPad lesson, students complained the devices were responding slowly. Smiley suspects it was a bandwidth problem, something he has been working with AT&T to fix.
And anyone who owns a computer knows that glitches happen.
Werner recently prepared to review the use of quotation marks, but the SMART Board's interactive function stopped working that morning. She switched gears, teaching a different lesson with the SMART Board playing a minor role in displaying images.
Werner called for tech support, and the board was working the next day.
Also in Werner's class this year:
-- It's the end of the school day. Werner is finishing up some business with a group of students. Others grab iPads and hop onto the SpellingCity website to play games that help them practice their weekly spelling words.
-- In a lesson about cultural differences, kids giggle as they hear the familiar "Happy Birthday" sung in Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Spanish, all recordings Werner downloaded from the Internet and displayed as part of a SMART Board lesson.
-- In a computer lab, kids communicate with kids in another school, collaborating on a project that explores the influences in their lives that make them who they are.
Computing devices are everywhere, but Janesville public schools still don't have enough in most cases for all students to have their own devices. At least not yet.
Schools that get federal Title 1 funding -- which targets areas of poverty -- generally have more technology. Schools that don't get Title 1, including Janesville's high schools, have less.
Superintendent Karen Schulte has urged her principals to seek private funding to get the technology they want. Monroe School is getting SMART Boards because Principal Lori Burns got the school involved in a national U.S. Cellular contest that netted $50,000.
Making sure all students have equal access at school is important, Smiley said.
A SMART Board in every classroom is one element Smiley thinks is essential. Adams School has that, but the district as a whole is 222 boards short of the goal, at a cost of more than $3,000 each, installed with associated equipment.
Digital equity at home is another issue. Smiley said a minority of local families don't have devices at home, and children will have to take advantage of computer access in after-school programs or by going to the public library.
Werner said she will give students the option of doing homework on computer, but she can't require it because some students don't have one.
Smiley said the smart phone is changing the problem, because many families, if they have nothing else, have a smart phone, which can access the Internet. Even some homeless families have them, Smiley has heard.
Still, the district needs to find ways to help those who don't have access to computers, Smiley acknowledged.
Computer labs still are valuable tools, even though many of their functions are moving to the smaller, handheld devices in the classrooms. No need for the class to file through the halls or the teacher to schedule lab time.
Computer labs will be needed into the foreseeable future because the rows of computers will be where standardized tests are taken.
Janesville students already take the district-based Measures of Academic Progress tests on computer, and the state standardized tests are expected to be on computer by spring 2015, Smiley said.
Is the investment in digital learning worth it Some critics say it's a fad, but most educators are sold on the potential. Smiley certainly is. He said it:
-- Adds relevance to whatever is being discussed in the classroom by bringing new information to the conversation, almost instantly.
-- Adds rigor, by enriching the information on any topic.
-- Engages students.
"It's just fun," he said enthusiastically.
Smiley said blackboards still have their place, as do whiteboards and other low-tech teaching aids. Werner's classroom is a good example. Its walls are overflowing with posters, tips, lists, reminders and illustrations.
And, students still have paper and pencils and textbooks.
"We're not throwing out our pencils. They still have a place," Smiley said. "It's just that they're not the only thing we write with."
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